The Best Beaches in California

SD › Best Beaches in California
Updated: July 21, 2021

Beach in California

El Matador Beach in Malibu, California.

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California Beaches – Where to Go

• With around 840 miles of Pacific coastline, California boasts some of the best beaches in the world, swathes of gold and white sand famed for their sunsets, marine life and sunny skies – as well as a vibrant surf and beach culture. We’ve narrowed down our list of favorites beaches to 30, ranging from the lively city beaches of San Diego and LA to the wilderness strands protected by National Parks. Most of our choices fall south of San Francisco – though the coast is gorgeous north of here, the water is usually far too rough and cold for swimming

• When to Visit Californian beaches: Californian beaches are at their best from late May to early October when there’s great weather and the seawater is a little warmer for swimming – in Southern California at least. North of San Francisco swimming in the Pacific is for the hardy only with the exception of Hearts Desire Beach in Point Reyes.

• The best “off-the-beaten path” beaches in California are Panther Beach, McClures Beach, Sand Dollar Beach, and San Gregorio State Beach. The best city beaches are at Carmel, Santa Monica, and Coronado.

• The best beach for families is Salt Creek Beach (and nearby Baby Beach, in Dana Point). The best beaches for partying are the Santa Cruz, Venice, and San Diego beaches.

• The best beaches for surfing are Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, Huntington Beach, Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, Asilomar State Beach, Newport Beach, and San Onofre State Beach (Trestles Beach).

The best beach hotels in California: Malibu Beach Inn (Malibu) • Shutters on the Beach (Santa Monica) • Casa del Mar (Santa Monica) • Hotel Erwin (Venice Beach) • Montage (Laguna Beach) • Pacific Terrace Hotel (Pacific Beach) • Tower 23 (Pacific Beach) • Hotel del Coronado (Coronada)

The 30 Best Beaches in California

1. Malibu Beaches: El Matador, Paradise Cove, Leo Carillo, Surfrider

We’re cheating a little, including all our favorite Malibu beaches under one umbrella entry, even though they spread for some 16 miles west from Malibu Pier. Some of the best beaches in the US are here, though they can get crowded in the summer. El Matador State Beach is a series of coves (cliff-foot strips known as “pocket beaches”), below crumbly amber cliffs pockmarked with caves. Paradise Cove is another gorgeous spot backed by sandstone cliffs and with the added bonus of a waterfront café and hip beach scene. Next to Malibu Pier itself, Surfrider Beach is a legendary surf spot, as is Leo Carrillo State Park.

2. Panther Beach

Some nine miles northwest from Santa Cruz on Hwy-1, this is one of our all-time favorite beaches. It’s a relatively small cove, crammed with gorgeous golden sands and hemmed in by white cliffs. On the south side a rock arch leads to even more pristine Hole-In-The-Wall Beach. Though it’s incredibly picturesque, it’s a bit rough for swimming (and the water’s usually too cold).

3. Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Big Sur features some wonderfully wild beaches, but this is the best, framed by giant cliffs and massive rocks in the surf. The white-sand stretch (with lilac hues) is dominated by two giant humps of rock, one of which has a keyhole sea arch (in mid-winter the sun sets behind it). It’s another place where swimming isn’t great, though – chilly and rough – and it can get very busy in the summer months.

4. San Gregorio State Beach

Some 40 miles south of San Francisco, this is another one of our favorites, a long, wide strand of smooth sand backed by beautiful cliffs. There’s also a creek and lagoon that attracts thousands of seabirds. It’s possible to stroll for two miles south from here to Pomponio State Beach – it’s often deserted. Like Panther and Pfeiffer, it’s not a good place to swim, though – the rip currents are strong and the water is usually pretty cold.

5. Crystal Cove State Beach

One of our favorite SoCal beaches, this gorgeous strand in Orange County, tucked away beneath a line of sandy cliffs, is just 2.5 miles northwest of downtown Laguna Beach. At low tide its perfect for beach strolls and tide-pool exploring. Eat at Crystal Cove Shake Shack back up the cliff on Hwy-1. Sunsets here are mesmerizing, and in summer, swimming is usually possible.

6. McClures Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore

One of our few choices north of San Francisco, this wild and remote beach is worth the effort; a short walk downhill after a long drive to the northwestern shore of Tomales Point. It’s a sensational, often deserted strip of golden sand hemmed in by sandy cliffs – there’s a real “end of the world” vibe. There’s a lot more to discover nearby – Point Reyes National Seashore boasts around 80 miles of shoreline. Other favorites includes Drakes Beach (backed by white sandstone cliffs) and Kehoe Beach, with giant dunes and a blend of dramatic sandstone and granite cliffs. On the protected Tomales Bay is Hearts Desire Beach – not as picturesque but the shallow calm water make it the best beach near San Francisco for kids and families.

7. Santa Monica & Venice Beach (Los Angeles)

We had to include the state’s most iconic beaches – and our top city beaches – home to famous piers, Muscle Beach, a jam-packed boardwalk, and a host of wacky characters – as well as a swathe of beautiful sand. Strolling the two-mile boardwalk between Santa Monica and Venice is a right of passage for any visitor to the Golden State, taking in the skaters, surfers, street performers, and lively beach bar scene. Santa Monica is more upmarket, with the celebrated Pier and cliffs of Palisades Park anchoring the seafront. To the south, alternative Venice is a little rougher around the edges but always fascinating. The main strip ends at 1,300-foot long Venice Pier and locally celebrated Hinano Café. Several of the best hotels in Los Angeles are nearby or within a short drive

8. Carmel City Beach

Exclusive Carmel-by-the-Sea features this blissfully undeveloped swathe of white sand with plenty of space – and spectacular sunsets. Small beach fires are permitted at the southern end. Though Carmel is best known for its chic boutique hotels, galleries and restaurants, its beach is one of our favorites, with sugary, clean sands – it’s also a fun place to swim (though currents can be strong). Just to the south, equally enticing Carmel River State Beach fronts an idyllic mile-long bay that also features a bird sanctuary at its southern end. Though it often looks a lot calmer, riptides are strong here and it’s not a good idea to swim.

9. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg

Part of MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg, Glass Beach gets its name from the heaps of multicolored sea glass that once piled up on the shore here. Three separate coves here were used as a local trash dump right up to 1967, discarded bottles and ceramics gradually breaking down to form colorful circles and lumps. Though it’s illegal to remove the glass, many visitors have done so, meaning that there’s not as much glass to see today on the main “Glass Beach” (there’s more on the other two, slightly less accessible sites) – it remains incredibly pretty, however, and a fascinating place to visit.

10. Coronado Beach

Just across the bay from Downtown San Diego (linked by ferry and the Coronado Bridge), Coronado boasts one of the best beaches in the US, with sparkling sand (thanks to specks of mica, the sand literally glitters in the sun), a revitalized main drag (Orange Avenue), and a selection of superb beach hotels, including the celebrated Hotel del Coronado, an elegant Victorian resort opened in 1888 (made famous by Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot”).

11. Santa Cruz Beaches

Santa Cruz is a quintessential California beach town, with miles of sandy beaches and excellent surfing. The main city beach is a wide and sandy strip either side of the aging wooden pier, Santa Cruz Wharf. There are volleyball courts on the beach, while the water is safe and (usually) warm enough for swimming in the summer. The best surf breaks can be found at Steamer Lane, just to the south. Further west lies the incredibly scenic Natural Bridges State Beach; here waves have cut holes through coastal cliffs to form arches, though three of the four “bridges” have collapsed, with just large stacks protruding from the ocean today.

12. Salt Creek Beach

Another Orange County, favorite, some six miles south from Laguna Beach on Hwy-1. Salt Creek Beach Park is justly popular with families, who come to enjoy the swimming, body surfing, sunbathing, and tide pools (lifeguards are on duty here in the summer, and there are restrooms and a snack shop). Thanks to a small reef offshore, the beach gets some of the best left swells in all SoCal – it’s also popular with surfers. Just to the south lies narrow but equally attractive Dana Strand Beach, while in Dana Point itself, just over a mile away, Baby Beach is a wonderfully sheltered cove perfect for youngsters.

13. Hermosa Beach

One of our favorite LA beaches (though neighboring Manhattan Beach is almost as fun), with fewer tourists than Santa Monica/Venice, and a cool eating and drinking scene. It retains a slightly laid-back 1960s surfer vibe, despite being a relatively wealthy community today, with a pleasant boardwalk, Hermosa Beach Pier, and a well-maintained swathe of sand. Jazz club Lighthouse Café (www.thelighthousecafe.net) just behind the pier, as well as several surfer bars and dives, make this a fun spot after dark.

14. Del Mar & Solana Beaches

The adjacent communities of Del Mar and Solana Beach, 20 miles north of San Diego, feature long, sandy beaches and warm weather year-round. Del Mar’s Main Beach runs from Powerhouse Park to 29th Street, where there’s a popular Dog Beach (dogs allowed off the leash), while north of the San Dieguito River Solana Beach features 1.7 miles of beachfront comprising four parks; Fletcher Cove (aka “Pillbox), Tide Beach Park, Seascape Surf, and Del Mar Shores, popular for surfing, surf-fishing, swimming, and body-boarding.

15. West & East Beach, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is one of California’s oldest, most attractive (and affluent cities), famed for its wine, boutiques, museums, old Spanish Mission, and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Yet its two main beaches provide much of the allure. West Beach is a beautiful, wide stretch of sand, with ocean view restaurants and a great bike and walking path, sandwiched between the marina and Stearns Wharf. East Beach offers more space but also loads of activities, from volleyball to windsurfing – it’s also just steps away from the wineries of the Funk Zone.

16. Cambria – Moonstone Beach

Located to the south of Big Sur, Cambria is a popular seaside resort, with a large choice of accommodation facing Moonstone Beach, its premier attraction. This beautiful brown-sand beach is known for its pristine coves and tide pools – it’s not hard to find an empty section, even in summer, and seals often lounge on the shore.

17. Black Sands Beach, Marin Headlands

This mile-long black sand beach, north of San Francisco (just across the Golden Gate Bridge), is my favorite in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, though there are several contenders (Rodeo Beach and Muir Beach). Expect fabulous views, soft and smooth sands, and a short but steep climb up and down the cliffs to get there. Note that the beach can narrow considerably at high tide.

18. Huntington Beach

It’s hard not to love “Surf City USA”, a small town crammed with hip cafes and bars facing a long, sandy beach – surf, swim, sunbathe, fish or just enjoy the incredible sunsets. It’s also known for its volleyball courts and fire-rings for beach bonfires. An 8.5-mile paved beachside trail connects the main beaches on this popular strip, starting Huntington State Beach south of town, and taking in 3.5-mile Huntington City Beach and its dedicated Dog Beach. To the north lies Bolsa Chica State Beach and Sunset Beach. The most famous surf spot is on the south side of Huntington Beach Pier (notably in winter), where the pilings create a sandbar and current rotation.

19. Pacific Beach and Mission Beach (San Diego)

San Diego’s most popular beach enclaves begin seven miles northwest of Downtown, with Pacific Beach our absolute favorite – it’s another top spot for gorgeous sunsets, beach life, boardwalk fun, surfing, and places to eat and drink. Plus there’s Crystal Pier Hotel, right on the pier. From here there are almost three miles of beach due south, as Pacific Beach blends into the narrow Mission Beach community, best known for Belmont Park, an old-fashioned amusement park. Most of San Diego’s best hotels are within a 20-minute drive of the beaches.

20. Pebble Beach, Crescent City

There are numerous wild and scenic beaches in the far north of California, but this is our favorite. At low tide, it’s a huge swathe of sand, with the ocean picturesquely studded with hundreds of islets and rocky outcrops (the biggest is known as Castle Rock). With misty mountains in the distance it makes for a fantastical, otherworldly scene, home to hundreds of seabirds, seals, and sea lions.

21. Thousand Steps Beach, Laguna Beach

Of the many enticing strips of sand in Laguna Beach, this is one of the best, a beautifully maintained bay surrounded by cliffs lined with palm trees and expensive homes. The iconic staircase down is pretty steep (though there are not a thousand steps, just over 200). A little further north, otherwise similar Victoria Beach features the bizarre “Pirate Tower” at its northern end, a medieval-like turret built in 1926.

22. Sand Dollar Beach, Big Sur

Sand Dollar Beach is the longest stretch of sand along the Big Sur coast – busy in summer due to the adjacent Plaskett Creek Campground, but often deserted at other times. It forms a long, wide bay, surrounded by mountains; as well as being very picturesque it’s not a bad place to swim (on a warm day), though it can also get choppy (then it’s popular with surfers).

23. Capitola Beach

Affluent Capitola is a charming seaside community to the east of Santa Cruz, its small center and beach split by the Soquel Creek. On the west side sits the old pier, Capitola Wharf, topped with the Wharf House Restaurant, while candy-colored “Venetian Village” cottages line the sand behind it – it makes for one of the prettiest beach backdrops in the state. On the east side stands the main commercial district, including a number of waterside restaurants along the Esplanade. Capitola is also a great place to learn to surf, with mostly gentle waves.

24. La Jolla Shores Beach

This is the mile-long main beach near to chic La Jolla, north of San Diego, great for surfing, bodyboarding and kayaking. La Jolla is San Diego’s most affluent seaside community, with a dramatic coastline of caves and cliffs, cute little beaches, high-quality dining, and boutique shopping. Just to the north of La Jolla Shores lies the wooded bluffs of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and famous clothing-optional Black’s Beach.

25. Newport Beach

Ten miles south of Huntington Beach, Newport Beach is best-known for its miles of yachts and yacht clubs, as well as its famous and affluent inhabitants. Yet the narrow Balboa Peninsula boasts a gorgeous three-mile-long strand, with plenty of action around Newport Pier at the end of 20th Street, and Balboa Pier (home to Ruby’s Diner). It’s usually good for swimming, with plenty of surfing and volleyball on offer, as well as fabulous sunsets.

26. Avila Beach

North of Pismo Beach, the central Californian summer resort town of Avila Beach boasts a short but wide swathe of silky white sand either side of 1,685ft-long Avila Beach Pier. The town itself is small and low-key, and it’s common to spot grey and humpback whales offshore in the summer. In between here and Pismo Beach is Pirate’s Cove Beach, one of the state’s most secluded clothing-optional beaches.

27. Silver Strand State Beach

Eight miles south of San Diego, and not far from the Mexican border, this protected section of sandy isthmus is one of the most underrated beaches in the state. The park encompasses 2.5 miles of Pacific beach and a half-mile along San Diego Bay on the protected side of the isthmus. The water on the bay side is better for swimmers – usually much warmer and calmer. Restrooms and cold showers are available on both sides.

28. Half Moon Bay State Beach

Some 25 miles south from San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is a laid-back seaside community known for its beaches backed by mountains, and seafood restaurants. Half Moon Bay State Beach features four miles of wide, sandy strands, with plenty of space, even in summer. Rip currents and cold water make swimming unadvisable, however. Nearby is Mavericks Beach, the legendary surf break.

29. Pismo Beach

Another laid-back seaside town in the Central Coast, with a wide, sandy beach – it’s best known for its local clams and the huge Oceano Dunes just to the south. The 1200-foot Pismo Beach Pier offers fine views of surfers riding the waves, while the sandy city beach stretches north and south from here, blending into Pismo State Beach three miles south. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts ride buggies at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, California’s only drive-on beach.

30. San Onofre State Beach

Beach set beach below beautiful sandstone bluffs, just off I-5. It’s best known as a world-class surfing hotspot, with legendary Trestles in the northern section (accessible by a 1.5-mile trail under the Trestles Bridge). The four other main breaks are “The Point,” “Old Man’s,” and “Dogpatch” and Trails. Swimmers and sunbathers will also enjoy the beaches here, and whales, dolphins and sea lions often frolic offshore.

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